Oeufs a la neige

I love the Winter Olympics. The Summer Olympics are fun to watch and all, but the Winter Olympics grab my heart. I read the coverage, I watch clips, I follow the way fans follow things. I even disconnect our internet connection and plug the cable cord into an old 9-inch TV tottering on a stack of books on my desk to watch the coverage.*

This love is clearly the fall-out of a Minnesotan childhood. As active as we were when the snow melted and the humidity and the mosquitoes set in, so many Summer Olympic events bear little resemblance to the things I ever did or do. I love to swim and always have, but as a kid I swam in lakes, not pools. The winter sports seemed more like expert versions of what we all did all winter long – skating for both speed and grace, hockey, skiing whether with our heels fixed or not, sledding down hills aiming for speed and hoping against crashes.

Every November we’d head to the sporting good store for new-to-us skates. Every garage had an arsenal of sleds and hockey sticks. Our neighbors flooded their backyard to skate on. If that was full we grabbed our skates and a shovel and cleared the creek near the house or headed to the park where acres of baseball and soccer fields were drenched and cleared and turned into so many skating rinks. I took figure skating lessons after school every week and on Saturdays our parents put my brother and me on a school bus that took us to the various ski hills within two hours of Minneapolis.

A DC friend recently tweeted, after six days home in Snowpocalypse, for advice from Minnesotans on what to do now that all the bread was baked and the movies watched.

I told him that snow is celebrated in Minnesota. It’s what makes the cold fun. No snow and you have a gray, leafless, and ultimately useless landscape. Snow means you can ski and snowshoe and snowmobile. Snow lets you build the banks for pond hockey.

As much as I identify with the sports, though, I know an even more important element of this love of mine stems from the memory of those two weeks when – in those late days of winter when it still got dark by 4 and the cold had set in deep and all that snow had lost the novel luster it had in December – my parents and my brother and I would gather and cheer. It probably helps that I was 9 (going on 10) when the Miracle on Ice happened at the Lake Placid Olympics in 1980. Of that twenty-man team, twelve, plus the coach, were from Minnesota.

So, as an ode to the games and as a way to keep busy on a school holiday that caught me by a bit of surprise and as a way of apologizing for steering every conversation towards the end of the Russian reign in figure skating or the number of Olympic-grade luge tracks in the Western Hemisphere or the percentage of Canadians who shoot left in hockey for the next two weeks, last night I made my dashing husband’s favorite dessert: oeufs a la neige.

Oeufs a la neige

These delights are lightly poached meringues floating in a vanilla custard sauce. A fun food fact: this dessert is called floating islands in English. The seemingly direct translation of that back into French would seem to be the dessert known as île flottante, which is, in fact, a different dessert altogether that may be made of meringue or cake but in any case is one big island surrounded by the sauce, not lovely little poached “snow eggs.” Since they are delicious served cold, you can make them up to a day ahead of serving.

4 eggs

tiny pinch salt

3/4 cup sugar, divided

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract, divided

2 1/2 cups milk, plus up to 1 cup more

Separate the eggs and set the yolks aside for the moment.

Put egg whites into a copper bowl, if you have one, but any large bowl will do. Feel free to use a standing mixer with a whisk attachment, if you like, but I’ve timed myself and I can beat four egg whites by hand almost as quickly – and with much less hassle and much more control – as the machine. Beat eggs with a large balloon whisk, if you have one, but any whisk will work, or in the machine until foamy.

Add salt and keep beating as it turned fluffy.

Keep beating until firm peaks form – when you lift the whisk or beaters out of the egg whites the peak that forms should droop a bit, but then stay put.

Fold in 1/4 cup of the sugar, incorporating 1 tablespoon at a time. Then fold in 1/2 teaspoon of the vanilla.

Put 2 1/2 cups milk and 1/4 cup sugar in a wide pot or sauté pan. Heat the milk to a gentle simmer, stirring occasionally to help the sugar melt. Use two large spoons to form football-shaped dumplings of the egg whites, scooping the mixture with one spoon and shaping it in that spoon with the other spoon.

Then using the free spoon to help ease the meringue into the simmering milk. Do as many meringues as fit without crowding or touching too much in the pan.

Cook, turning over once, until meringues are firm, about 2 minutes each side. You may be tempted to go check your email while the meringues are poaching. I cannot recommend you do that since, in my experience, it leads to this:

When the meringues are cooked, lift them out of the milk with a slotted spoon and drain them on a clean kitchen towel.

Repeat with remaining egg white mixture.

When all meringues are cooked. Strain the poaching milk through a fine mesh sieve. Add enough more milk to equal 2 cups, if necessary.

In a small bowl, whisk the egg yolks with the remaining 1/4 cup sugar until lighter yellow and thick. Keep whisking as you pour the milk mixture, which will still be very warm, into the egg yolks. Constant whisking will keep the yolks from curdling. Transfer this mixture to a medium saucepan and cook over low heat, stirring pretty much constantly with a wooden spoon until the mixture thickens enough to coat the back of the spoon and show the path where your finger runs to have a taste.

Stir in remaining teaspoon vanilla. Strain custard sauce, if you like.

You can now cover everything with plastic wrap and chill it up to a day before you serve, or prepare the dishes, cover them and chill them until you serve them, or assemble the desserts and eat them warm. You could even make one and eat it right away and then put the rest away for dinner time. Put about a sixth of the sauce in a bowl and float three meringues on top. Make five more.

* That’s right, we have no TV. We have no place we want to put it where the cable runs and we’ve just never fixed that because we seem to be able to watch most of what we want to on our computers or DVD. Don’t worry, we’re not actual crazy “no TV” people. As I’ve stated here before, the very fact of Project Runway gets me out of bed in the morning. I look forward to 30 Rock as much as anyone.